Why People Ghost — and How to Get Over It
Something strange happened at the coffee shop the other day. The gentleman in line in front of me — mid-40s, suit, bad haircut — ordered a latte. “Whole milk,” he said before changing to half and half, then almond milk. “For here,” he mumbled, then shook his head. “No. To go.”
I ordered an espresso. Our drinks arrived at the same time and I picked up mine, added sugar, sat, sipped. The latte remained at the counter, the barista calling his name over and over. But the man in the suit was gone. Why would someone order a drink and disappear?
Ghosting — when someone cuts off all communication without explanation — extends to all things, it seems. Most of us think about it in the context of digital departure: a friend not responding to a text, or worse, a lover, but it happens across all social circumstances and it’s tied to the way we view the world.
Asking for a beverage and then jetting may not seem equal to ditching an unwanted romance, but it’s really the same behavior. Uncomfortable? Just don’t respond. A ghost is a specter, something we think is there but really isn’t. We’ve all probably acted like this if we’re honest. We’ve all probably been ghosted, too, though sometimes we probably didn’t notice. These are supernatural times.
Last week, my sister and I got in an argument and her boyfriend didn’t text me back — a micro-ghost move.
“There are different levels of ghosting,” said Wendy Walsh, a psychology professor named one of Time’s 2017 people of the year for her whistle blowing that helped promote the #MeToo movement. My sister’s boyfriend is what Dr. Walsh calls lightweight ghosting. Midweight is when you’ve met a person a handful of times and you engage in deep avoidance, which hurts their feelings more. “Third wave is the heavyweight, when you’ve entered a sexual relationship and you leave, blindsiding the other.”
The pace of modern life makes it hard enough to maintain real life friendships; it’s impossible to actually be friends with everyone you’re supposedly simpatico with online. (Here’s a good test: How many of your Facebook friends are real? If you’ve met someone once and now they’re on your feed for life, get rid of them! If a friendship feels like too much work, maybe it is. The good ones shouldn’t feel like a chore on your to-do list, or that one side is doing all the communicating). Sometimes the best course is to let someone go, even if you were once close. Growing apart can be a friendship’s natural evolution; ditto for lovers, an even touchier discourse. But it’s the way you let go that matters.
Belief, destiny and growth
Studies have shown that social rejection of any kind activates the same pain pathways in the brain as physical pain, meaning there’s a biological link between rejection and pain. That goes for friends, partners and, if it had feelings, that lonely latte.
Staying connected to others has evolved as a human survival skill. Our brains have what’s called a social monitoring system that uses mood, people and environmental cues to coach us how to respond situationally. But when you get ghosted, there’s no closure, so you question yourself and choices which sabotages self-worth and self-esteem.
That ambiguity, said the psychologist Jennice Vilhauer, is the real dagger. She calls ghosting a form of the silent treatment akin to emotional cruelty (the pain it causes can be treated with Tylenol, according to multiple studies). So, how do you avoid it in the first place?
“Well, I think I’m particularly choosy about who I tend to interact with,” said Dr. Vilhauer, the former head of Los Angeles’ Cedars-Sinai Medical Center psychotherapy program. “You can get a sense early on of what kind of individual you’re dealing with.”
There’s no checklist, but watching how people treat others is a good indicator.
“Ghosting has a lot to do with someone’s comfort level and how they deal with their emotions,” she added. “A lot of people anticipate that talking about how they feel is going to be a confrontation. That mental expectation makes people want to avoid things that make them uncomfortable.”
When it comes to complex relationships, the ease and sheer volume of choice is making us numb emotionally, Dr. Vilhauer said.
“In the dating world where people are meeting a lot of people outside of their social circles, that creates a level of feeling that you don’t have a lot of accountability if you ghost someone,” she said. “Their friends don’t know your friends so it’s easy to do if you’re never going to run into them again in real life.”
What we really want
According to Dr. Vilhauer, who is in a long-term relationship that began on a dating site, the flip side is a subset of the population looking for real connection.
“People are craving authenticity,” she said. For those looking for love in online emotional echo chambers, “the more you date, the more it feels unsuccessful, the more you get discouraged.”
She added: “Being vulnerable is the number one thing that creates intimacy between people and if you worry about being hurt all the time, you’re not able to be vulnerable and it affects the quality of connection.”
That fear is the same thing causing so much ghosting, said Gili Freedman, who studies the language of rejections at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. One eyebrow-raising tip she offers when you’ve made a mistake and ghosted someone is to not say “Sorry.” Why, I wondered? It only makes the injured party feel more aggrieved, she said.
In a 2018 paper, Dr. Freedman discovered ghosting has a lot to do with how we feel about our future — or whether we think our mate is the “one,” which is a question of belief versus destiny. Either someone believes the relationship is capable of growing or they’re seeking an archetypal partner (what’s typically called a soul mate).
“Individuals who have stronger destiny beliefs are more likely to ghost,” she said. “If you’re with someone and you realize they’re not the one for me, you’re going to think it’s not much of a point to put in the effort, so you ghost. These people believe relationships are either going to work out or not.”
Those with less of a fixed mind-set exhibit fewer feelings of helplessness and express themselves in conflicts with romantic partners.
Her work’s most counterintuitive finding?
“People seemed to think it was more acceptable to ghost in a friendship than a romantic relationship regardless of destiny of growth belief,” Dr. Freedman said. “We think of friendship as these long lasting relationships that provide social support and it’s interesting to think people are saying it’s a little better if you do it in a friendship. How you look at relationships affects how you look at ghosting.”
“It’s really important to remember if someone ghosts you that behavior says more about them than you,” Dr. Vilhauer said. “It’s about their discomfort. You have to keep trying.”
One way to avoid this cycle is modifying how we reject people, suggests Dr. Freedman.
Don’t apologize, she said, but be honest about boundaries, whether it’s going to a movie with someone or spending the rest of your life together. Just be real.
“The good middle ground is explicitly rejecting someone and telling them ‘no,’ not ‘I’m sorry,’” she said.
It may sound harsh, but it’s better than being left in limbo. That may be why so many daters don’t get the hint and keep texting. That ostracism leads to rage, frustration and further alienation.
“If you’re apologizing, you’re enforcing a social norm and if you say ‘sorry,’ it’s very normal to say ‘that’s O.K., I forgive you,’” she said.
Taking a risk to tell someone how you really feel — even if it’s not what they want to hear — has benefits. Self-esteem, stress, blood pressure, spending more time with people you care about. And getting that time back opens up self-discovery. Maybe you’ll find what makes you most fulfilled is nature, which promotes alpha brain waves, fuels creativity and reduces depression (my personal fix).
Perspective can be a good path to empathy, Dr. Walsh said. Our always-on culture has eroded a lot of empathy, which is why we find ourselves stepping on each others’ feelings. Yet for all the choice, we’re all still seeking connections. The power of the internet and its ease in upsetting our lives is only poised to grow. It’s how we use this intoxicant that will determine its impact.
“We are wired to bond,” Dr. Walsh said. “The phenomenon of love, our greatest drug and delusion evolved for two people to get together and have offspring. The great survivors will be the ones who still figure out love.”
Adam Popescu is a Los Angeles writer whose debut novel, “Nima,” based on his BBC reporting from Mount Everest, publishes in May.
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